What is the job of a pastor?
Ask that question to a dozen pastors, and you will get a dozen answers. Ask that question to the hundreds of congregants those dozen pastors serve, and you will get even more answers. With so many varying definitions and sets of expectations, those of us in pastoral roles need a solid pastoral theology—a theology of what it means to be a pastor (AKA “pastoralia”)—from which to faithfully practice ministry.
Scot McKnight’s Pastor Paul: Nurturing a Culture of Christoformity in the Church is not intended to be an exhaustive pastoral theology, but it does provide a firm grounding for those who want to grow in their pastoral work, focusing on the witness and work of St. Paul.
Nurturing a “Christoform” culture
Rather than focusing on specific techniques or practices, McKnight argues that the pastor’s task is that of nurturing a culture. More specifically, pastors are to nurture a culture of Christoformity—that is, a culture “formed by [Christ’s] life, by his death, and by his resurrection and ascension” (p. 4). This is to say that the church is not simply a place where everyone is to believe the same things about Christ, but is a community that embodies those beliefs about Christ, his life, death, and resurrection/ascension. In a culture that often expects its pastors to be “shopkeeper[s] in religious goods and services” (to borrow a phrase from Eugene Peterson), McKnight’s reframing is a helpful reminder of what the business of the Christan life, and therefore pastoring, actually is: being conformed to the image of Christ.
Relationships > policies
I won’t give away here McKnight’s whole schema for culture formation, but I will highlight one helpful emphasis. When thinking about crafting church culture, I would venture to guess that many of us in the church world think about creating policies, systems, and structures that then draw a community together that becomes a culture, a sort of “build it and they will come” model of church. But McKnight suggests that this is exactly backward from how it ought to be.
He says that it is the relationships that form between pastors, leaders, and congregants along with the individual qualities and gifts of those persons, that form a church’s culture. “The structures, policies, and systems that churches establish and then indwell are not removed from these relationships; they are expressions of [them]” (p. 8). We pastors are nurturing our church culture in our conversations with congregants after the service and in our presence with them in times of need just as much as, if not more so than, in strategic planning meetings.
7 aspects of a Christoform culture
Looking through the lens of cultural formation embodied in relationships with people, McKnight spends the rest of the book looking at seven different touchstones of a Christoform culture:
- world subversion, and
He does not present this list as a complete picture of a Christoform culture, but instead draws, as the book’s title suggests, from the life and writings of Paul. These offerings are helpful, if brief, works of Pauline scholarship and provide a pastor with all the tools needed to start nurturing a Christoform culture in a local context. I will discuss each chapter briefly.
I would not expect a treatise on pastoral theology, especially a Pauline pastoral theology, to begin with friendship, but McKnight makes a good case. If culture formation is truly about relationships, where else can one begin in forming a culture than by forming friendships, both within and outside of the congregation?
Drawing a thorough picture of what Roman friendship looked like in the first century , McKnight demonstrates how Paul’s model of friendship is related to, but transfigures that model (a historical method that McKnight repeats in several other chapters quite successfully). Using the distinction of philia (Roman)- and agape (Pauline)-based friendship (p. 41), Mcknight offers a model of relating to other pastors and congregants as friends that fosters deep relationships and mutual growth in Christ.
But as Mcknight points out, Paul never actually calls his fellow Christians “friends” (p. 56). Rather, Paul is much more comfortable using the language of siblings to refer to his co-workers and addressees. McKnight sees this as a necessary shift in language to illustrate the ways in which relationships in the church differ from simple friendships.
Relationships based in agape/covenantal love will move from friendship into siblingship. These two chapters read together pose an important question for those of us who are pastors: how do we draw our people into friendships that develop into siblingships with one another? To answer this, McKnight provides several examples from Paul’s letters, including some of the best exegesis of Philemon that I have ever read.
McKnight then turns to a culture of generosity, which is a notoriously touchy subject for those of us who stand up front on Sunday mornings. Almost no one likes to talk with their congregation about money.
Mcknight’s contribution to this conversation is to point out that, despite the feelings of pastors today, Paul was not afraid to talk about money. In looking at the collection Paul took to the Jerusalem church from the churches in the broader world, McKnight argues that, for Paul, Christoformity extends to our finances. As subject so familiar to Paul’s writings should not feel alien to pastors today.
Perhaps it is beyond the scope of this book, but I would have appreciated a little bit more in this chapter on the implications for generosity outside of the boundaries of the church. McKnight successfully argues that Paul’s calls to generosity in his writings were for the benefit of fellow believers first, but I wonder how that might look different in our world today, with the church not as a marginalized minority, but, at least in the West, close to privilege and power.
The next chapter, on the church as a place of a storytelling culture, is the part of the book that speaks most pointedly about the struggles we deal with in our current moment. The gospel is the story that the church has to tell, with the ultimate theme of that story being the lordship of Jesus over all (p. 126). It is this story that informs and inspires the life of a Christian, not, as cable news would have us believe, the ebbs and flows of the culture wars or whoever happens to occupy the White House.
McKnight names in this chapter one of the biggest of our idolatries: statism. Statism is the idea that justice and righteousness enter the world through political power. Statism comes in all ideological stripes, and McKnight is careful to point out that it is not simply whoever holds power at a particular moment that is susceptible to it.
Statism happens when we as Christians give the allegiance that is only due to Christ to political powers and leaders instead. This was not the story that Paul told. Neither can it be the story that the church tells today. This is a must-read chapter for those of us who pastor in an election year.
Continuing with the theme of storytelling, McKnight reflects on how Paul used his personal story, his witness, in his ministry: Paul used his own story to tell the story of the gospel. Paul’s own dramatic story of redemption made plain to his readers the power of redemption through Christ.
We have to be careful as pastors how we share our own story. As McKnight notes, there is “a fine line of difference between a storyteller who ends up being the hero and the storyteller who exalts Christ” (p. 129). Paul is a pastor who did the latter. When the church has a culture of Christoform witness, it is a place where, using McKnight’s words, the gospel is “embodied” in our personal stories.
While we often think of Paul as a subverter of expectations and forms, McKnight does a very thorough job of demonstrating just how severe Paul promoted a culture of world subversion in the first century. By showing how Paul used the cultural trope of boasting to delegitimize the Roman idea of status, McKnight demonstrates just how expertly Paul understood his culture, saw things in it that were not of God, and challenged those things.
Paul stands as an example to us of how to engage with culture, calling its idolatries what they are, and presenting the new way of the gospel. I was encouraged by this framing of Paul’s example to look for the ways in which the gospel subverts the world’s order and expectations today. This is not easy pastoral work, nor will it always be immediately palatable to the people that we serve, but it is the work of a pastor.
Finally, McKnight turns to wisdom. In a world that is obsessed with youth and whatever is new (McKnight calls it “juvenilization,” p. 169), the church is to be a place of wisdom, which Mcknight defines as “living in God’s world in God’s way” (p. 172).
Wisdom is also Christocentric: “Pastors who pastor people toward Christ, who nurture a Christo-Wisdom Christoformity, show one and all how present Christ is in all places and how all things witness to the glory of Christ” (p. 173).
It is then the task of the pastor to pass on that wisdom. I would argue that those of us in the Anglican tradition are especially fortunate, in that the voice of the church fathers and mothers is readily available to us. We have a celebrated wisdom tradition that we can share with our people. Wisdom in this sense isn’t so much knowing the right thing to say at the right time, but instead knowing where Christians have previously dealt with the questions we face today—and seeking their counsel.
Pastor Paul is a book I will be returning to regularly in my work as a pastor, not only for the great exegesis with a helpful Scripture index, but also in considering the way that I am called to nurture a culture that looks like Jesus in my ministry. McKnight convincingly makes the case that Paul’s ministry was modeled on the life of Christ. This book goes a long way to equip pastors to ask how they might model their ministries in the same way.
As an Anglican pastor, I am excited to think more about how the patterns of our liturgical year, based on the life of Jesus, may help in forming a Christoform culture of friendship, siblings, generosity, storytelling, witness, world subversion, and wisdom. Whether it’s the sacraments, the Daily Office, or the church calendar—we have so many tools in Anglicanism that point us to Christ. After reading this book, I feel more equipped to make the connection between these tools and a Christoform way of community life.
Also as an Anglican pastor, I remember the promises I made at my ordination, among them this (from the Examination in the Ordination of a Deacon): “Will you be diligent to frame and fashion your own life, according to the Doctrine of Christ, and to make yourself, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ?”
I and all my fellow Anglican pastors who are ordained have answered yes to that question. McKnight reminds us as pastors that we are first to conform ourselves to Christ if we are to shape a culture of Christoformity: “The pastor’s responsibility is to cling to the Lord in love, adoration, worship, obedience, and faithfulness” (p. 12). If we are looking to form a culture of Christoformity, there’s no better place to start than this.